June Update – Writing and Guitars

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve provided an update, so this one is long overdue. The main reason for my lack of updates is because I’ve been exhausted. Like a lot of people, my life was drastically changed when Covid hit. Not because of the actual virus, thankfully no one I know has been hit by it, but because of the reaction to it. Turns out, no one needs a designer during a pandemic, so I lost 90% of my freelance income. Thankfully my wife still had her job, and we had a little money saved back, but without knowing what to expect of the future, I immediately started applying for any and every job I could find. After 3 weeks of almost no income, I got a call about a job at a local factory. I had no idea what the job was, what shift I’d be working or even how much I would be paid; all I knew was that orientation was the next day. I immediately accepted.

Some how I lucked out and got a first shift position. And even though the pay is at the low end of the spectrum, there’s a whole lot of mandatory over time, it’s hot, dirty and physically exhausting, it’s a job. One positive aspect of it is that I lost over 20 lbs in the first month, and over 30 lbs so far. I’m almost down to the weight I was at 28, before I quit smoking and got a desk job.

Another positive about the job is that it really doesn’t require much brain power, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about my books. Unfortunately, I was too exhausted during the first month and a half to do anything with those thoughts once I got home. But my body has gotten a little more accustomed to averaging 25,000 steps a day while lifting 100’s of parts, so I’ve finally been writing again. My Life As Death is really coming along. I am even more positive now than ever, that this will be my best shot at a traditional publishing deal.

I’ve also given a lot of thought to my other books, though I haven’t been working on actually writing them right now. MLAD is my primary focus, and the writing is going so smoothly that I don’t want to disrupt it by trying to work on anything else. Once it’s done ( or God-forbid, I get writer’s block with it) I think I’ll be able to easily switch gears and finish up Zero Sum, and possibly even After the End.

In addition to writing, I’m also continuing to build guitars. Thankfully I’ve sold a few and I have a few orders to finish so I’m keeping busy with them. I also have a few builds started to add some much needed inventory to my online store (https://www.etsy.com/shop/RileyCustomGuitars). Right now I’ve only got one guitar left for sale, so I’ve got to get these done soon.

So my writing and guitar building are slowing coming back to normal, and hopefully my design career will be close behind them.

Fun with Fire

I started this next guitar with the idea of doing a budget build. I wanted to design a guitar that could be built with limited tools and for very little money. While the design changed a little over time, the basic concept remained the same.

To keep the cost down, I decided to use edge glued pine for the body, instead of my usual poplar.

I cut the two pieces, flipping the template over to cut and route the top piece. This helps hide the screw holes inside the finished body.

I also cut out the control cavity and neck cavity and routed a wiring channel in the top piece before gluing the two halves together. I used a dremel tool to route the wiring cavity so it wasn’t very pretty, but it worked. And once the guitar was assembled, no one would see it.

A lot of glue and clamps, and the body was ready for shaping and finishing.

At this point the body could be completed with just a little sanding and maybe a little rounding of the edges, but I decided to break out my files and give it some contours.

If you have a router, it makes this step a lot easier, but filing edge glued pine by hand isn’t that difficult, and getting the shape I wanted was actually pretty intuitive and enjoyable.

So with the body shape done, I needed some way to finish it. I’d learned about shou sugi ban years ago, and had always wanted to try it, so this seemed like to perfect opportunity. It fits well with the “budget” theme, and nothing screams rock-n-roll more than setting a guitar on fire.

Supposedly the flame treatment is enough to seal and protect the wood, but I ended up throwing on a clear topcoat, just for good measure.

As a “budget” build, especially for someone without a lot of tools, I had planned on using a bolt on neck from Guitar Fetish. I love these GF Basic necks, and for $33 you can’t beat the price, unless you happen to find one of the clearance necks. I’ve managed to pick up a couple of the “blemished” necks for $15-25 dollars, but that’s not typical.

I just happened to have a neck I’d already built, so I decided to use it instead of buying another one from Guitar Fetish, so I bolted it on.

Unfortunately, I forgot about taking pictures as I finished assembling the guitar. I used a standard hardtail bridge, a single volume pot, tuners and a magnetic pickup, all from mgbguitars.com.

This is where I deviated from my initial concept a little. I had planned on making the pickup and control cavity covers from wood, but then I changed my mind and 3D printed them. It still cost me next to nothing (~$0.50 for both), but I know most people don’t have 3D printers. And for anyone without a printer, the parts could still be made from wood.

So here’s the final product:

This was a really fun build, and a great way to use some of the parts I had laying around. Calculating the cost of everything I used, even though I already had most of it, this guitar cost me about $75. Having to buy the Guitar Fetish neck would probably take the cost closer to $100, but I still think that’s a great price for a custom, one-of-a-kind, guitar.

3 Strings – Something a little different

I’ve played guitar (not necessarily well) most of my life. It’s something I enjoy for myself but I don’t take it very seriously. I’ve also been a builder/creative type to some degree, so it makes perfect sense to me that I would eventually start building guitars. The one thing I could not have expected was that I would end up building a 3 string guitar.

The general term used for 3 and 4 string guitars is “cigar box guitars”, because most of them are actually made from cigar boxes. I came across a lot of these while researching guitar building, and there are a ton of really cool ones but I was only interested in “real” (in my mind) guitars, so I never really looked into them. But then something funny happened.

One of the companies I bought my supplies from (https://mgbguitars.com/) caters to the cigar box market. Several of the pieces on the “Lady in Red” build came from them, so I shared a couple pictures of the final build with them. The owner liked it and invited me to join a facebook group for cigar box builders. I was intrigued, so I accepted the invitation, and let me tell you; these guys are amazing.

The guys in the facebook group are some of the most genuine, and genuinely nice, people I’ve never met in person. And they share a passion for building amazing and creative guitars out of anything and everything they can find. Their passion is contagious, so I decided to build a CBG, even though I didn’t have a cigar box. But that’s okay, because these guys had shown me that a “cigar box” guitar can be built from anything.

I really like building guitar bodies, so I took the opportunity to design a new body style. This is what I came up with:

Building this 3 string was similar to building other guitars, but somehow felt easier. I made a few mistakes during the build, but all-in-all, I’m really happy with how it turned out. But even more importantly, I’m really happy with how it plays.

I’ve always played a traditional 6-string guitar in standard tuning, so I figured it would be weird to play a 3-string in open G tuning. It was a little weird at first, but also amazing. Playing this thing is just so easy and freeing. after a couple days I found myself able to jump in and play along with many songs as they streamed on spotify. I immediately fell in love; so much so, that I’ve already started building several more of them. I also ordered way too many cigar boxes to try my hand at a few traditional CBG builds use as well.

I had been told a couple weeks ago that due to the Covid-19 issues disrupting the aerospace industry I was going to be furloughed for two weeks starting next week. I planned on using this time to finishing building several of these guitars and putting them for sale. Then yesterday, I was informed that my contract had been cancelled. So while I will still be building several guitars, I’ll also have to use this time to try to find a new contract or permanent position. I don’t know if this will result in me having more or less time to build, but I will definitely post an update as soon as I have some guitars ready for purchase. In the mean-time you can check out my other goodies at https://www.etsy.com/shop/keyboardmonkeydesign

Writing in Public

Dean Wesley Smith just announced that he’s going to be “Writing in Public” again, and I love the idea. Basically, as a professional writer, he posts updates every day about the book he’s working on. He’ll include his thoughts on the writing, word counts etc…, and I love when he’s done this in the past. Unfortunately, I have not reached the point where I could do daily updates like that, because I don’t write every day, but his announcement did help me realize that I have not been providing updates on my books as often as I’d like. I have several books in process, and people do occasionally ask me about them, so I’m going to try to do better at providing updates, at least weekly. So in order to catch up anyone who’s interested, here is where each of the books stand:

My Life As Death
This is the book I’m working on the most. I believe it will give me the best shot at securing an agent and possibly a traditional book deal, so once it’s done I will start shopping it around. As of right now, based off word count and story structure, it is 60-70% done.
Word Count: 41,421

After the End
After the End is the novella that takes place after the end of 23 Hours. Initially I planned a four novella series starting with 23 Hours, but decided I liked how 23 Hours ended, so I never completed any other books. Right now it’s about 90% done, and I’m not sure if I want to finish it or not. It’s a fun story, and I have ideas for the other 2 parts of the series, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever pursue them.
Word Count: 21,271

Zero Sum
Zero Sum is the sequel to The Consciousness Puzzle. It’s my second highest writing priority, after MLAD. It’s very much a Mike Locke story, with a bit of intrigue, a little humor and a lot of action. It too, is about 60-70% complete. Once I complete MLAD, and as I look for an agent, I plan on finishing Zero Sum and publishing it as quickly as possible. I’be already got ideas for the next 3 Mike Locke stories and I’m dying to write them.
Word Count: 45,378

The Failed Exodus of Daniel James
As the name suggests, this is the sequel to The Dark Genesis of Daniel James. I started writing it just after finishing Dark Genesis, but then got the idea for The Consciousness Puzzle, then 23 Hours, etc… one thing led to another and Failed Exodus ended up neglected. I still think the book, and the plan for the rest of the series, is a good one, but there’s a lot that goes into writing the Daniel James series so it has dropped to 3rd or 4th on the priority list.
Word Count: 15,559

I have about 2 dozen other books I’ve started which will probably never see the light of day. I’ve also got about 3 dozen plot ideas I’d love to work on, but first I’ve got to finish these four.

So now that you’re all caught up, I hope to keep the updates coming. If there’s a particular book you’re dying for me to finish, let me know in the comment section.

Lady in Red Update

One of the great things about building guitars is experimenting and changing things as the mood strikes me. The Lady in Red build looked great, but a solid body guitar with piezo pickups just didn’t provide the sound I was looking for, so I decided to make some changes. I’ve got several guitars with humbuckers, but I don’t have any with single coil pickups so I swapped out the double piezos with a single coil pickup from MGB (https://mgbguitars.com/collections/pickups/products/guitar-parts-pickups-seven-fitty). I didn’t take any pictures of the process, but it was pretty straight forward. I routed a cavity in the body and drilled a hole connecting it to control cavity, then ran the wiring.

MGB sells a pickup cover for the seven-fitty but due to my setup it didn’t get the pickup as close to the strings as I wanted, so I 3D printed a new cover. I also 3D printed a logo for the head while I was at it. I can’t say I’m completely done with this one, but I love the way she sounds…for now.

Back to Writing…Sort of

My to-do list is dwindling down to just 43 projects left (plus a couple my wife is trying to sneak in) and the weather in Ohio in January pretty much sucks, so I’ve finally gotten back to writing. Last week I tried working on Zero Sum, the next Mike Locke book, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I made some progress, and recognized a few things that weren’t working, but I didn’t feel like I was getting back into the groove. Today I started back on My Life As Death, and things just started flowing. Something about this story and these characters just comes naturally to me, and I’m very thankful for it. With the projects I still have left, and some up-coming travel I have scheduled for my freelance design business, I am not sure how much writing time I will have, but with great writing sessions like this I should continue to make progress. The book is already about 75% done, so with any luck I should be able to get it finished by summer.

Building a Guitar Part 5: Finishing the Lady in Red

I’ve been slacking with with my updates on this build because it’s been done for a few weeks now, but here are the final steps in completing this build.

Final assembly on each of my guitars starts with bolting on the neck and re-attaching the bridge which was pre-positioned. Before I can secure the bridge, though, I have to attach the piezo pickups and run the wires through the body to the control cavity. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of this process, but it is fairly straight forward. I use double sided tape to adhere the pickups to a 3-d printed housing I designed, and then use more tape to hold the housing to the bridge. The housing helps align the pickups and protects them from being crushed when sandwiched between the bridge and body, but because it’s only 0.050″ thick, it’s almost invisible.

With this guitar I used two pickups, each with their own volume pot. Because one pickup is on the base side and one is on the treble, I can use the pots to blend the highs and lows to customize the sound I want. I don’t have the schematic for how I wired these, or even a great picture, but basically I wired the piezos in parallel, adding the volume pots between them and the jack based on this diagram from https://www.cigarboxguitar.com/knowledge-base/cigar-box-guitar-piezo-wiring-diagrams/ :

Piezo Diagram with Volume Pot and Jack

I’m not the best with wiring or soldering, so it wasn’t the prettiest job (and I accidentally touched the soldering iron the the body, leaving a coupe small burn marks), but it worked.

All in all, I’m very happy with this guitar. It’s a solid body with electric strings so it has a completely different sound then my semi-hollow build which is strung with acoustic strings. The semi-hollow has a fuller sound, more in line with the stuff I usually play but this one has a more driven, piercing sound that will go really well with the new rock/metal songs I’m working on learning.

Every project I take on turns out to be a great learning experience, and this one was no exception. I love the control the two pickup-two pot setup gives me, but I have a slight modification I’m going to try in the build. I’ve also already modified the neck design slightly. This one plays fine, but I want to get it a little thinner and a little more aggressive on the side angles to help facilitate some faster playing. And with these changes in mind, I’ve already started on my next one; a budget build. Because it’s a budget build, it won’t require a lot of the extra tools and steps of my previous builds so I’ll do the write-up in one post as soon as it is complete. In the meantime, here’s a preview:

Building a Guitar Part 4: Finishing the Body and Neck

With the neck built, it was time to finish the body. This included routing all the body edges, routing the control cavity cover recess, and drilling the neck bolt holes.

Then, with the neck fitted into the neckpocket of the body, I measured out the 25.5″scale and positioned the bridge, drilling the holes for the mounting screws and for routing the pickup wiring.

With all the routing and drilling done, it was on to the most nerve-racking part of the build for me, finishing. Sanding all the parts took a lot of time, especially the inner parts of the cutouts, and I still didn’t do a great job but the results are good enough for me.

After sanding, it was time to add some color and protection to the wood. I found an awesome red paint (duplicolor metalcast) that I used for my brother’s guitar and decided to use it. It’s a translucent automotive paint that is meant to go over bare/bright metal, so it is extremely durable while still allowing the natural woodgrain to show through. I did 6 coats of the red, wet sanding after every-other coat.

When the paint had time to cure, it was time to apply top coat. My go-to for guitar building has been Rust-oleum’s Triple Thick Glaze. It’s a non-yellowing coating that goes on well and provides an awesome high gloss finish. I applied 4 coats of the topcoat, wet-sanding after every-other coat. I then allow the topcoat to sit for a while (about a week in this case) before polishing. During this time, I also applied boiled linseed oil to the entire neck. I had thought about using the same Triple Thick Glaze, but ultimately decided that the linseed oil would give it a more natural feel

So, with all the painting and polishing done, all that is left is the final assembly and wiring.

“Good” Is No Longer Good Enough

Today I had an early appointment at the car dealership to have my wife’s car worked on. The car only has 50K miles, so I wasn’t happy about it, but it was covered under the warranty and the wait gave me a chance to do a little writing. I haven’t worked on Zero Sum for a while, and it’s been sitting at about 90-95% done, so I really wanted to make some progress on it. Unfortunately, as I read the last bit I’d written, I realized that it really needed some work. The story is good, but I’ve decided that “good” is no longer good enough for me.

When I first started writing it was strictly for myself. I had characters and stories floating around my head and I wanted to write a novel to entertain myself, so I wrote Dark Genesis of Daniel James. By the time I wrote The Consciousness Puzzle, I had already published Dark Genesis and it had been downloaded a couple thousand times, so I knew people might actually read my stories, but I continued to write TCP for myself. I figured The Daniel James Saga would give me the best chance for commercial success so I didn’t really take the Mike Locke books seriously; they were just fun genre stories so “good” was my quality target. But as I said, good is no longer good enough.

As I sat in the dealership waiting room, I thought about the the various scenes and plot points in Zero Sum. About half of them are great and I can’t wait for people to read them; about half are average. While I think the book would be a fun read for just about anyone, I also think that the book overall would be completely forgettable. So I started dissecting those week plot points to determine how to make them stronger; how to use them to keep the story (and subsequently the reader) moving forward. In a very short time I came up with a number a changes that would make Zero Sum a much better story. Unfortunately, that means rewriting; a lot of rewriting.

Normally I try to stick with Robert Heinlein’s rule# 3) You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand but I also keep in mind Dean Wesley Smith’s thoughts on the matter. Dean believes in a distinction between rewriting and redrafting. What I have planned for Zero Sum is more of a redraft than a rewrite. I’m tossing out large parts of the story and rewriting from the creative side of my brain now that I know where the story is going. I really don’t like the idea of “loosing” 25,000 words but it will definitely strengthen the story and take it from “good to “great” so it will be worth it.

Traditional or Indie?

The writing is going very well, and I can’t wait to share “My Life As Death” with everyone. I didn’t know what to expect when I started writing it, but it has turned into something I never could have planned; probably because I didn’t plan it at all. I just started with an idea about a teenage Grim Reaper and I let the story lead the way. But early on in the writing of it, I knew this would be my best shot at going the traditional publishing route.

I knew absolutely nothing about publishing when I began writing; I just had a story to write. But as I continued writing, I began looking into the various publishing options. This was around 2011-2012 when the Amazon Kindle and independent publishing was just starting to get big. Writers like Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey were becoming some of the first “Kindle Millionaires”, and even traditionally published authors like Joe Konrath and Dean Wesley Smith were sharing their advice on forgoing the traditional route. I read everything I could on the subject, and when The Dark Genesis of Daniel James was ready, I went the indie route.

Going the indie route was the right decision with Dark Genesis. As my first book, I was very unsure of myself and I very much wanted to have complete control over the entire thing; it was my baby. I don’t think I would have done well with the submission process, let alone the editorial / revision process if it had actually been accepted by an agent or publisher. Most likely, that book would have been my last.

23 Hours, at around 20,000 words was an awkward length to try to get published anywhere, so traditional publishing it wasn’t really an option. Trad publishing might have been worth considering for The Consciousness Puzzle, but as much as I enjoy the book, and especially the main character, there really is nothing that makes it stand out from the sea of action/adventure fiction already available out there; I just wrote what I wanted to read. Having TCP as my debut (trad published) novel would have probably been the end of my trad publishing career.

So that brings us back to My Life As Death. After 8 years of writing I’ve definitely matured as an author, and I like to think I’ve gotten quite a bit better. I also think that story and the characters in MLAD are the best I’ve written. They’re a bit unique, a little deep, and extremely entertaining (at least to me). I think it’s the perfect book for me to be able to get an agent and a traditional publishing deal, so that’s been the plan, until I read this article by Dean Wesley Smith.

The monetary breakdown wasn’t anything new to me. I’ve read this sort of math before, but seeing it again made me question if I still wanted to pursue the traditional route. It wasn’t just the money aspect though, it also reminded me what sort of time frame I’m looking at from the traditional path.

Yesterday I started writing the first draft of my query letter. I’m sure I’ll write several more versions before I’m content with it. Then I have to write a synopsis of the book. Then I have to research probably 100+ agents so I can identify a couple dozen I will query. Then, as far as this book goes, all I can do is wait. And even if by some chance I get an agent to agree to represent me, we have to try to get a publishing company interested. That alone is a huge battle, but even if it’s one we eventually win, there will be rounds of edits followed by production concerns, etc… to further push out the actual publishing. This means it could be (and most likely would be) years before the final book is available. This is what really has me reconsidering the Traditional vs Indie route.

I want to get this book in front of people. I want to share it with readers everywhere, as quickly as possible, and I know publishing through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Draft 2 Digital, etc… would allow me to get it out there the quickest. I also know that I suck at advertising and marketing my books. A traditional publishing deal doesn’t guarantee my book would be marketed any better, but it gives it a better chance to be marketed by someone who knows what they’re doing.

So that’s my dilemma, “Traditional or Indie?” What are your thought?